The Toda tribe is famous for their distinctive style of embroidery. Passed on through generations, the embroidery is done on stripes of red and black colour. The shawl adorned with the Toda embroidery is called Poothkuli. Known by the name, Pugur in Toda language (meaning flower), the embroidery tradition has lived through a century of its documented history to manifest today in drapes, dupattas, table cloth, stoles, kurtas, pajamas, skirts and jackets, besides the traditional Puthukuli (shawl), its original place of majesty.
For the Toda men and women, wearing an embroidered shawl is not only a matter of aesthetics but also a way of carrying oneself with dignity. Each lifecycle ceremony demands a particular design on the shawl, and the shawl complements and completes the carefully constructed aesthetic ecosystem of their environment. The embroidery is done only by the women and the designs are taken from their daily lives and from Nature. The motifs inspired by the rattan binding of their conical houses and temples, by butterflies, the sacred snakes, peacock’s tail feathers and so on. Though the women sit together often under a tree after lunch their embroidery is very individualistic. Embroidery styles are distinctive, and the Todas are able to identify whose handiwork and which village it comes from, by just looking at it. The women who are well-known for their needlecraft are from the villages around Ooty.
The local terms used to describe the embroidery work are 'kuty' or 'awtty' meaning "stitching" and 'kutyvoy' meaning the embroidered piece. The materials used in this work are roughly woven white cloth, woolen black and red threads with use occasionally of blue threads and manufactured needles. The designs developed relate to nature and the daily cycle of life.
The fabric used is coarse bleached half white cotton cloth with bands; the woven bands on the fabric consist of two bands, one in red and one band in black, spaced at six inches. Embroidery is limited to the space within the bands and is done by using a single stitch darning needle. It is not done within an embroidery frame but is done by counting the warp and welf on the fabric which has uniform structure by the reverse stitch method. To bring out a rich texture in the embroidered fabric, during the process of needle stitching, a small amount of tuft is deliberately allowed to bulge. Geometric pattern is achieved by counting the warp and welf in the cloth used for embroidery.
Though their favorite study is related floral landscape, the patterns used in Toda embroidery do not cover many floral motifs but generally cover celestial bodies (like Sun and Moon), reptiles, animals, and horns of buffaloes, made in crimson and black colours. Rabbit ears are a constant depiction on the boundary of the embroidered cloth. Another common design in the form of black triangles in a box design is done in honour of their first priest. Women who do embroidery consider their work as a "tribute to Nature". A dead body is always wrapped in an embroidered fabric with traditional designs and then buried. However, coloured stripes are used in fabrics of daily use. As a traditional garment, it is worn by both men and women at all ceremonial occasions and also at funerals. Elderly people of the community wear this cloth daily.
This handicraft product is listed as a geographically tagged product and is protected under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act (GI Act) 1999 of the Government of India. It was registered by the Controller General of Patents Designs and Trademarks under the title Toda Embroidery" and recorded at GI Application number 135 under Class 24, Class 25, and Class 26 as Textiles and Textile Goods, clothing, and Embroidery, respectively, in March 2013. A certificate of the GI registration was formally presented to the community leaders in June 2013. This was first initiated in 2008 and the agencies who supported this registration are the Toda Nalavaazhvu Sangam, Keystone Foundation, and Poompuhar.